Web Roundups

19 Important Features to Look for in a Web Host


Twice a month, we revisit some of our readers’ favorite posts from throughout the history of Nettuts+. This tutorial was first published in July, 2010.

If you’re reading this, you probably develop websites. We don’t make websites to let them sit on our own computers: we set them free on the web. While it’s often more fun to create the website than to worry about hosting it, web hosting isn’t a decision you should make lightly. In this roundup, I’ll point out 19 things you should look for when choosing your web host.

1. Amount of Storage

Ive Drive Unibody External icon by The Iconfactory, Inc.

When choosing your web hosting, one of your primary concerns will obviously be “How much data can I store?” For most small and medium web sites, you’ll find that several gigabytes should be plenty of storage. Some hosts may offer “unlimited storage”: caveat emptor! If you read the fine print (usually, the Terms and Services) you’ll find that it’s unlimited until you go over the “normal site usage.” If you think you might be close to or over whatever “normal” is, make sure you know what you can use before buying … or go with a host that sets clear limits.

2. Amount of Bandwidth

When looking for a web host, you’ll often see storage and bandwidth hand in hand. What is bandwidth? It’s the amount of data that your host will let you and your visitors upload and download (cumulatively) in a given month. Say your website is 1 megabyte of data and your monthly bandwidth is 10 MB. At the beginning of the month, you upload the entire site; now you’ve used up one MB of bandwidth. If a visitor to your site views every page, they will have downloaded 1MB of data. That means you can have up to 9 visitors in that month (assuming each views your whole site). After that, your web host will either not allow any more visitors, or (more likely) charge you extra per MB. Of course, your bandwidth is something you’ll want to keep an eye on, especially if you run a fairly popular site or do something media intensive (like host your own video, or high-res photos). Just like storage, some hosts offer “unlimited” bandwidth; again, if you think you’ll be in a grey area, find out the limits or choose a host that sets the bar where all can see it.

3. Number of Domains and Subdomains

Once you’re running one site, there’s a good chance it won’t be long until you’ve got a second one up … and then a third. It would be a pain to have to manage a hosting account for each site you own, so make sure your web host will let you host multiple domains. Often, there will be a limit on how many domains you can have on one account; make sure it will accomodate you! Usually, there will be a section in the admin panel for adding your domains and choosing which sub-folders each one will point to. The same is true for sub-domains.

4. Email Accounts and Features

Many web hosts also offer email account for your domains. You’ll want to know how many email accounts they’ll let you set up; also, don’t forget to check out their selections for receiving that mail. Do they have a webmail interface? Multiple ones that you can select from? How about integration with Google Apps (for the Gmail interface)? Can you get your mail in your client of choice via IMAP, or do they only offer POP?

5. Database Support

Database icons (including post preview icon) by barrymieny

Now-a-days, even small websites seem to have a database on the back end. You’ll want to make sure you can use the type of database you’re comfortable with. Most hosts today offer MySQL; that’s probably enough for most people, but if you’d prefer PostsgreSQL, Oracle, SQL Server, or another flavour, don’t settle for anything less. Remember, if they aren’t advertising it, they probably don’t offer it!

6. Framework Support and Easy-Install

A lot of web hosts offer support for popular frameworks, blogging systems, or CMSes. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Nettuts’ readers are WordPress fans: it’s always nice when your web host offers a one-click install (or at least a super easy set-up) for WordPress or your CMS of choice.

7. Mobile App or Website

For most people, this will probably be a nice extra; however, I’m sure there’s something who will find having a mobile app to access your site administration / statistics on the go indespensible. While I only know of two hosts (MediaTemple and SliceHost) that currently offer iPhone and Android apps (MediaTemple’s Android app is forthcoming ), I’m sure most hosts will follow their lead. Both offer mobile websites as well, and I’m sure other hosts have the same.

8. Tech Support

This one is very important: find out exactly what your prospective host offers for tech support: can you phone them? At what times? Do they have a support email address? A ticket system? What’s their promised response time? How about a live chat? Do they have a wiki or library of help articles / tutorials? Don’t choose a host until you know exactly what support they offer; you’ll be happy for it later, trust me!

9. Shell Access

If you’re a little more advanced, you might want to consider choosing a host that offers shell access: that’s logging into your server from the command line over SSH. You’ll be able to securely copy files up and down, change file permissions for whole groups of files quickly and easily, and perform a multitude of other tasks. If you want this feature, you’ll know all that you do with it!

10. .htaccess Files

Here’s another important one: you’ll want the ability to add your own .htaccess files to your directories. What’s a .htaccess file? It’s a configuration file used by Apache server. You can use them to password protect directories, re-write URLs, redirect pages, and more. Check out the many good tuts here on Nettuts+ to get familiar with them.

11. Cron Jobs

Cron jobs are another great feature to have on your web host (and there’s a good chance you’ll have them if you’ve got shell access). Cron is a “time-based job scheduler” (thanks, Wikipedia) that you can use to perform tasks on the server at given times. To learn more about how to use Cron and what you can do with it, check out the great Cron tutorial we ran back in January.

12. Language Support

This should go without saying, but make sure the host you plan to choose offers support for the server-side languages you want to use. If you plan to pick up Ruby on Rails in the next few months, you probably want to see it on the list of supported frameworks. If you want to use Django, make sure there’s Python support. Don’t lock yourself into having PHP as your only option (unless you’re sure that’s all you’ll ever want or need!).

13. Free AdWords

While not a necessarily something you need, it’s something you’ll probably want to take advantage of: many hosts offer some Google AdWords credit (usually ~$50, I’ve found) or some other form of advertising. Even if you'd rather use another advertising proxy, you can’t beat free: you might as well use it!

14. Site Backup

Don’t think that your web host is any less suseptible to data loss than your own computers; remember, servers are just big computers that everyone can read files from! What backup options, if any, does your host provide? You’ll want to back up both your site files and databases. If they don’t offer backup, figure out how you’ll be able to do it yourself: this might be one of the places that shell access and cron come in handy!

15. Choice of OS

For most people, this won’t be a big issue. Of course, if you’re developing in ASP.NET, you’ll need Windows hosting; that’s a little harder to find, and often a bit more expensive, but if you’re a Microsoft developer, the extra cost will be worth it. (If you’re interesting in learning about ASP.NET, check out our great tuts on the subject.) If you’re using an open source language, you probably won’t need to worry about which Linux/Unix distribution you’ll get; however, some hosts give you options, and some developers may have preferences, so it’s worth mentioning.

16. Extra Applications

We already talked about content management systems, but sometimes you’ll want a something more. Several hosts offer set-ups for social features like forums, bulletin boards, mailing lists. If you’ll be running an online store, some hosts offer setups for eCommerce solutions.

17. Up-to-Date-ness

If you can, find out what software versions the host you are considering offers. Some hosts aren’t quick to upgrade to the latest offering, while others will let you choose which version you want. There are few things worse than signing up for a year of hosting only to discover your host is running PHP 4.x (yes, I’ve made that mistake).

18. Up-Time

I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that it’s important to know that your visitors will be able to get to your site when they try! Find out how reliable your prospective host is; when you’re doing this, it’s important to read the fine print. Often, hosts will stretch the truth a bit (claiming 99.9% uptime, not counting almost everything that could go wrong), so make sure you understand exactly what “100% uptime” means. It would be a wise move to google around and see what other users and reviewers have said about the host.

19. Free Domain

While you may already have a domain name, there’s no such thing as too many of them. Most hosts offer this, but all else being equal, a shiny new domain name is a good enough reason to go with one host over the other.

Conclusion: What’s your tip?

I’m sure you’ve got some great tips for choosing a web hosting solution. If you do, don’t hesitate to share them in the comments! Also, let us know what hosts you’ve found reliable and which ones have come back to bite you.

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